#Solar100’s Lidija Sekaric: Solar’s jack of all trades

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The saying goes, “A jack of all trades is a master of none,” positing a distinction between a generalist and a specialist.

Bucking convention that someone could only be a generalist or a specialist, Dr. Lidija Sekaric is solar’s jack of all trades.

Sekaric earned her PhD in applied physics, holds thirty U.S. patents, and has over forty scientific publications. In response to climate change, Sekaric brought her research scientist background to focus on solar in 2009, and she has been working in renewable energy ever since.

In this interview, Sekaric talks about the future of distributed energy and what she’s learned about successful teams after hearing $1B of solar funding pitches.

STARTING IN RENEWABLE ENERGY

Richard Matsui: From a PhD in applied physics to research at IBM to policy work at the Department of Energy, you have a unique career in renewable energy. How did you get started?

Lidija Sekaric: I started my career working as a Research Scientist in Nanostuctures and Exploratory Devices group at IBM. Although it was fascinating work, and I was working alongside very smart people, I decided to shift my focus to renewable energy. I felt that I needed to do something about climate change, using whatever brain power I have.

So in 2009, I joined the US Department of Energy (DOE) as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science Policy Fellow, a two year program that encourages participants to engage in policy work where they can contribute with their critical thinking and analytical skills. Before us were the big problems in policy and technology, especially with the new administration in place, and we asked questions such as, “Is there a new material we may need for solar to become the default energy source?” or “Is there a new device we need to invest in?”, towards, ultimately: “How can solar be made more affordable all around?” Afterwards, I was recruited for the newly-founded SunShot Initiative at the US DOE Solar Energies Technologies Office (SETO).

After seven years with DOE and five with SETO, the renewables landscape had changed quite a bit. There was so much more activity in the private sector in renewables and distributed energy that was not there when I first got into the field. An opportunity with Siemens came up and a company that has an incredibly wide array of technologies and business engagements was very attractive. It, too, followed the expansion of my personal universe when it came to technology and business activities.

Richard Matsui: How does having a physics and research background influence or inform the way you think about these very different roles?

Lidija Sekaric: In my current role in Strategy and Marketing, I do not spend much of my time thinking about the next greatest material or device. We build projects that are bankable, and so we don’t integrate solutions right out of a lab on customer sites—there is no need for that, with an array of proven solutions. But I have found that my research background is helpful when communicating with colleagues across executive, R&D, and sales departments. Whether it’s thinking about fluid dynamics or grid operations, or talking about product offerings in the context of market needs, it is useful to be able to quickly grasp and communicate technical concepts, without needing to learn them from scratch.

 

DISTRIBUTED ENERGY

Richard Matsui: What do your customers value, when you pitch them on distributed energy solutions?

Lidija Sekaric: Cost savings, reliability, and sustainability—and the order of importance changes for a different customer class. If we look at the U.S. military as an example, the mandate has previously been sustainability and minimizing cost to the government. Reliability was always absolutely needed,  but now I think that reliability is certainly first and foremost. Similarly, hospitals and aid shelters think about reliability first.

And then, there are customers who want to save money in the short-term, or have a customer-driven path to reducing the carbon footprint.

However, even if the customer’s stated motivation is sustainability or reliability, all of them want to see savings from the project. Because these projects can and do save money. Because now we don’t have to assume that you always have to spend more to have cleaner, on-site power.

Richard Matsui: Fascinating. I’m reminded of an interview we did with Jigar last year, and this was the point he was making, too. He was saying that sophisticated C&I developers have moved beyond simply pitching customer savings, because the customer values a lot of things beyond dollars. He provided an example of solar projects for schools, and how if batteries were attached to those solar projects, then all those schools could also serve as shelters in case of emergency. In this case, yes, there are savings, but the resiliency benefit is also critical.

From your experience, do you find this is true, or is the priority still cost savings first?

Lidija Sekaric: First, assume that everybody wants to save money, and assume that you have to build a project where you will save them money. But in terms of other priorities, I think it really depends on the customer. You have to understand their priorities, and it’s best when you can address multiple motivators.

Richard Matsui: In the past 24 months, there has been a flurry of acquisitions in this C&I distributed energy space, including ENGIE buying Opterra and SoCore. If you fast-forward 10 years, what does this market look like? Does it end up being fairly fragmented or are there just a couple of large national players?

Lidija Sekaric: That’s a really good question. Is the market going to consolidate, with only one entity that is servicing everything from top to bottom, including a building’s service, power generation, trading into the wholesale market, and advice on energy purchasing? It would be like replacing your utility with another entity that is functionally equivalent to your utility, and then some. Of course, in some markets, the major difference is choice and competition. The switching costs to this model could be high in some cases, or low, with a number of innovations in financing these services, but if done right, the rewards should always be worth it.

The critical question here is: How are customers going to react? I think it will ultimately depend on how the customer feels about signing up with one entity for a long time. It’s still an evolving landscape.

Richard Matsui: Everyone’s favorite analogy in storage is, “Storage is where solar was ten years ago.” You’re uniquely positioned to be able to comment on both, having worked in solar then and storage now. From a technical standpoint, would you agree with that analogy?

Lidija Sekaric: It is not dissimilar. Because they are both materials-intensive industries, the learning curve should look about the same. In a sense, there is no actual scaling required in the way we think of physical scaling with a computer chip. Scaling with storage is just tied to volume, as manufacture of the materials scales.

Further, you can also consider the obstacles for solar that will be similar for storage. If you look at a breakdown of the costs, we have almost a mirror image of soft costs versus hard costs. They are basically the same, and I can’t say I am surprised.

To illustrate that, let’s look at large scale versus small scale storage. Small scale storage is still going to be very tough for all the reasons that small solar was difficult. From the different local rules for electricians, to system integration, to business overhead, to packaging, it is fundamentally harder on a small scale, when the market is still so small and every solution looks different. Small storage now is harder because it is not standardized at small scale. And non-standard solutions can be expensive, unless that is mitigated in the overall project.

In many ways, solar ten years ago and storage today are the same.

 

ADVANCEMENTS IN THE SOLAR INDUSTRY

Richard Matsui: As Director of the US DOE SETO’s SunShot Initiative, you previously managed a portfolio of about $1B in project funding in solar R&D.

Having heard $1B worth of pitches, have you noticed trends or shared traits across successful teams?

Lidija Sekaric: Yes—it always came down to how well teams understood the market. From startups to university professors to national lab researchers, when teams possessed the instinct for keeping an eye on the market, they often came up with very relevant proposals. A team can understand the technology and have very smart people, but unless that team truly understands the market, their solution goes nowhere.

In addition, the ability to pivot was also important, because there’s always ways to improve the project.

Richard Matsui: Can you highlight a few projects that you feel really moved the needle for the industry?

Lidija Sekaric: There are several that come to mind and that I noticed in recent headlines. Aurora Solar was funded early on through a SETO program, and they are still out there and offering automated design.

And your team at kWh Analytics won an early SETO award. It was incredibly ambitious, what your team proposed to do all the way back in 2013, building the industry’s data repository. And now you created the Solar Revenue Put with all of that data. It is very significant.

Richard Matsui: Thanks, I really appreciate it.

Lidija Sekaric: We can’t take a hundred percent credit for everything you’ve done, but by association, we’ll say, “That’s in the family.”

Richard Matsui: Without the early support from your team we would not be where we are today. A lot of credit should go to SETO.

 

GENDER EQUITY AS A BUSINESS IMPERATIVE

Richard Matsui: You’ve previously said that gender equity in solar is “more than a diversity imperative; it is a business as well as a moral imperative.” Can you elaborate?

Lidija Sekaric: From the standpoint of having managed and worked with people from a range of diverse backgrounds—cultural, educational, gender, orientation, and so forth—I have seen the business benefits to having a diverse team. I firmly believe that we bring our entire selves to work, and that where we come from shapes our unique perspectives on life. Having a diverse team means being able to turn a problem over and examine it from many different sides. Diversity is one of the most important things in tackling problems creatively. And creativity is incredibly important in solving problems. For example, when it comes to gender equity in particular, there are studies that show that companies that have women in leadership perform better than comparable companies without women in leadership. When finding the most efficient business practices, diversity needs to be prioritized.

The moral imperative comes into play for companies that have a social mission. Diversity and equality are smart and important ways of bettering society.

Richard Matsui: The Solar Foundation has helped provide important data about the people working in our industry. Their latest survey underscored that yes, progress has been made, but that women and people of color are still underrepresented in this industry. Have you seen examples of initiatives or individuals who are moving the needle on this issue?

Lidija Sekaric: For diversity and inclusion, awareness is a requisite for change. To start, the Solar Foundation provides a valuable service by allowing us all to speak from the same set of facts. For anyone who cares, learning the current realities is an important step towards then being able to ask, “What do we do about this?”

When it comes to initiatives that I see promoting economic equity, I would like to highlight an organization that was started by a former colleague of mine, Dan Conant. Dan founded Solar Holler, which is an enterprise with a solar and economic development initiative at the core.

Dan went back to West Virginia and said, “Look, coal is not going to be around for these people. What are we going to do for the people in the poorest places that we have in the country?” And so he started this program doing installations and providing trainings to develop the skills of West Virginians to develop solar.

This example is not specific to gender equity, but it is about economic equity and giving people opportunities to thrive. It takes exposure to know that an industry is thriving, and for people to think about moving in that direction.

On the gender equity issue, any conference organizer, or a committee organizer, who is thinking about the makeup of that group beyond their degrees and titles, is doing something significant—it is providing human visibility, and visibility begets diverse participation in return.